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Originally published in The California Aggie

Junior English and political science double major Kate Henka was tired of being called a “dumb blonde.”

So she wrote it on her forehead.

Wearing a dress, pearls and bright red glasses, Henka posed on the staircase of the UC Davis Art Building with “dumb” written across her forehead and “blonde” stretched across her cheeks as photographer Tommy Corey snapped away, offering occasional adjustments and direction.

“I was in Washington, D.C. this summer writing speeches for the Secretary of Defense, and my hair color was an identifier,” Henka explained afterwards. “People would say, ‘Where do you work, Habitat for Humanity?’ Fuck you, I like my hair. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

On Saturday, Feb. 5, Henka and 15 other Davis residents and students offered themselves up as subjects for The Self-Worth Project, Corey’s part-photography, part-therapy artistic campaign. Participants choose a word that represents a hidden insecurity, write it somewhere on their bodies and hold a photo shoot with Corey, who captures the word and emotion of revealing a secret anxiety for the world to see.

“No matter how different we are with race or orientation, we all share similar fears and doubts about ourselves. It’s been healing for people who view [the photos],” said Corey, 23. “For people who get their photo taken, it’s therapeutic – almost like it’s a secret they get to expose and let out.”

Corey, a self-taught photographer and part-time bartender from Redding, started the project in October 2010 after reading about increases in teen suicide. A former target of bullying, Corey instantly sympathized with the victims’ families and any child who feels lonely and unloved.

“I remember having suicidal thoughts back when I was little. You feel ostracized by your peers. It’s hard to cope with when you’re that young – you don’t understand that things will pan out eventually,” Corey said.

His first subject was his brother Mikey, whose photo depicts him pulling his hair and screaming, with “girls” written on his forehead. As other friends agreed to participate in the project, Corey established a Facebook page which now boasts over 7,600 fans and is his main source of publicity.

Due to increasing demand, Corey asks all potential subjects to fill out a questionnaire explaining their chosen word and why they want to be involved. He selects two or three at a time to meet him at a predetermined location and walk around to find the best background for each participant. Though Corey always asks models how they want the photo to look, he said he is usually the creative force behind the shoot.

Corey’s visit to Davis was part of his west coast tour, which so far has included stops in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Cruz.

Sophomore wildlife, fish and conservation biology major Karin Petrites posed on a stool in an Art Building classroom with “improvisation” written across her chest. The word represented a dreaded time in her childhood jazz classes.

“I played the saxophone in jazz band, and we’d go around one-by-one doing improv,” Petrites said. “We had to put our creativity out there for everyone else to judge, and I felt so scared.”

Erica Morrissey, a 19-year-old senior psychology major, chose the word “fraud” to represent the insecurity she feels when people make assumptions about her character because she graduated high school at 15.

“People always ask, ‘Are you super smart?’ At Davis, I’m no [smarter] than the next guy,” Morrissey said. “I feel like I’ll be found out that I don’t deserve to be here.”

Corey said the response to his photos has been overwhelmingly positive, though after his first public show at a restaurant in Redding, a viewer wrote a note criticizing the project.

“This guy wrote, ‘I can’t believe you let those faggots put their work up. This is a community event, there were children present and I thought the work was disgusting and offensive,’” Corey said. “And I thrive off that kind of stuff. I thought that was awesome.”

Sophomore economics major Omar Gonzalez was one of Corey’s first models. He posed in front of an American flag with “Chicano” written on his forehead to represent the difficulty of being an American-born Mexican.

“I wanted to take this as a platform so people will learn to think about Chicanos in general differently,” Gonzalez said. “I’m happy [the Self-Worth Project] has taken off. I thought it would amount to the number of friends [Corey] has on Facebook, but now I’ve seen other photographers copying him.”

Ultimately, Corey hopes to register the project as a nonprofit, compile the photos into a book and show his work in San Francisco and New York art galleries. On Thursday, he and six of his subjects will be speaking at the Cascade Theater in Redding about the project, and more speaking engagements are in the works.

Corey said he remains inspired by his subjects’ courage and vulnerability, many of whom have chosen difficult words like rape, cutting and fat. He has had people come up to him after shows moved to tears by his work.

“I relate this whole project back to treating each other with understanding,” said Corey. “You don’t want to judge people offhand because you don’t know they’ve been through.”

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